by Andrea Faville
Third-grader Linda Brown trekked across Topeka, Kans., to school every day although a public elementary school was only seven blocks from her house. Linda made good grades. She was the right age. But she was not allowed through the door. Only white children could attend the school. Linda was black.
The year was 1951 — a full 83 years after the passage of the 13th and14th Amendments guaranteed equal rights to all American citizens, regardless of color. But institutionalized racism had been upheld by a series of “Jim Crow” laws, which forbade blacks to use the same schools, bathrooms, or even drinking fountains as whites. Nearly a century earlier, in 1896, the Supreme Court legitimized the racial discrimination in its Plessy v. Ferguson ruling, the legal precedent for “separate but equal.”
Linda’s parents, along with 12 other families in the Topeka School District, challenged the premise of “separate but equal” schooling in a class action lawsuit against the Board of Education. On May 17, 1954, the U. S. Supreme Court unanimously agreed with the parents. The justices ruled that segregated schools are unconstitutional. Separating black children solely on the basis of race, the justices said, sent the message they were inferior — damage “never to be undone.”
In 1955, the Supreme Court strengthened its stance on school desegregation with “Brown II,” which demanded that schools integrate “with all deliberate speed.”
But racial integration remained bitterly divisive. in 1957, the bitterness boiled into violence when Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus ordered the state National Guard unit to prevent nine students from enrolling at Little Rock’s Central High School. President Eisenhower responded by sending federal troops to protect the “Little Rock Nine,” as the students came to be called.
The Brown v. The Board of Education decision’s effect in public schools was slow but unmistakable. By 1976—just 15 years after the Browns and the other Topeka families began their fight, Southern schools were the most integrated in the nation. Nearly half of Southern black children attended majority-white schools.
Brown v. The Board of Education ruling left two major legacies: It changed the public school system for once-segregated children like Linda Brown. And it gave civil rights activists grounds to challenge the remaining discriminatory institutions in the United States.